The Shadeback

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Chapter 5: Dragonsong

Zenatheus’s dreams were troubled.

He was enveloped in a nightmare of the worst kind (as they often were, for him) – one of those blasted vivid ones that occasionally hinted at the events of the future and were mind-twistingly confusing.

Below him, above him, and around him, was a stretch of seamless, ebony space, twinkling in places with three-dimensional clusters of glowing white stars and motionless, purple clouds of dust. Hesitantly he stepped forward, believing that he would fall through the endless night for all eternity, but his foot found invisible, solid ground. Also, he found that he could breathe. Again Zenatheus took a step, more confidently this time, and once more he did not fall, so he strode forward.

With every movement he traveled a lightyear, though he could never come close to a star, and he did not see any planets, galaxies, or other. The sorcerer simply walked on and on….

….until an unseen force made him halt.

Hello, whispered a deep, cavernous voice.

Zenatheus stiffened. He attempted to speak and discovered that his voice would not work; thus he tried successfully to use mindspeak. Who converses with me? he demanded. You spoke to me in the cave, did you not?

Indeed I did, whispered the voice, almost with a cold humor. Answer me a riddle, Zenatheus:

I see you, though I have no eyes,

I hear you, though I have no ears,

as I am long dead, yet always alive.

I am everything as well as nothing,

forever moving but going nowhere,

and well known by all, though not existing.

Who am I?

Zenatheus wheeled around, looking about, confused. He did love the occasional riddle, but this wasn’t one he’d ever heard. I don’t understand.

There is nothing to understand.

The sorcerer scowled. This dream was giving him a headache. Then what’s the point of this riddle?

To see if you can remember the answer, growled the voice.

Zenatheus blinked and frowned more deeply. Are you a memory, then?

Chilling chuckling rang around him, but then began to fade. I suppose you could say that. The voice was distant now, going away.

Wait! Zenatheus yelped, reaching for nothing. Space melted into blank whiteness. He was falling, falling…

Abruptly his boots connected with stone. He opened his eyes—then his mouth, with astonishment. Zenatheus stood on the corner of Fifth and Main Street, hidden in the shadows. Light from the pale, full moon turned the cobblestone into glowing silver.

Suddenly a flash of darkness cut through the pallid gleam. Zenatheus blinked. It was a figure adorned in a black shawl. The stranger glanced left, then straight at him. Zenatheus sucked in his breath—“hhh”—but the person did not appear to see him. It swept down Fith Street. Courageously (or stupidly) deciding that nothing could see him, Zenatheus strode after the figure.

Zenatheus’s boots scuffed over the cobblestone as he quietly dashed along. The punishing wind ripped past his threadbare, ash-gray, moth-eaten parka and matching woolen pants, chilling him to the bone.

He shivered and pulled up his hood, then slipped into a shallow moonlit alley, close on the cloaked stranger’s heels.

Light shone at the end of the alley like a beacon. It wasn’t long before a familiar cottage came into view, but Zenatheus was instantly preoccupied by another sight.

A shudder not borne from the breezes ran up the sorcerer’s spine. A huge, dirt-filled rift covered sparsely with newer cobblestone was visible in the road. We buried him here…

His heart filled with sadness and regret whilst his mind filled with bittersweet memories, even as his eyes filled, too. A vision within the current one flashed before him…

Sword raised and a screech on his lips… For once regret and melancholy darkened the silver gaze staring back at him, instead of hatred and evil… He faltered: how could he kill the creature that he had raised, even though the scale-bound murderer had just savaged the town in which Zenatheus lived? But a snarl played on The Shadeback’s jaws once more and the dragon’s eyes were alight with cold flames again… Zenatheus steadied his blade, squeezed his own wetted eyes shut, and then, with a heartbroken war cry that rent the night, dealt the fatal blow…

Returned to his original dream, which seemed to have frozen when he had lost concentration, Zenatheus sniffled and looked down. He started when he realized that he could see through himself… and the ground. Empty eye sockets scowled out at him.

He gasped, but found he couldn’t breathe. Below him rested the fleshless corpse of his dragon, The Shadeback, perfect and whole except for the upward-tilted skull. Its jaws slightly parted, frill bejeweled with long, deathly sharp horns, there was a gap right in the forehead where his blade had struck. Only an enchanted sword could have parted a fully-grown dragon’s scales and bone in order to kill it.

Zenatheus took in great, shuddering breaths and tore his gaze away from The Shadeback’s body. Time resumed. He hurried over to the cloaked figure as it stopped and set a glossy black ellipse on the cottage steps: Shadeback’s egg.

A cluster of shadows descended from the folds of the shawl and stroked the egg in the manner that one would stroke a beloved pet before parting for a great period of time. A hushed, otherworldly hum resonated through the brisk night air.

Zenatheus stiffened. The warble echoed in his ears and struck a chord somewhere inside him.

Hmmbiynnya-ooo… the mysterious song went.

The world was concentrated into a single point for a brief, almost nonexistent moment, or so it seemed to Zenatheus, focused on the stranger and the egg.

Hmmbiynnya-ooo…

For the song was dragonsong.

“Do my bidding well,” the figure whispered in a malevolent, cavernous voice, “and change fate in my favor, little hatchling.”

Before Zenatheus could ponder this further or even recover from shock, the cottage door was flung open. Yellow light flooded over the porch and Zenatheus was drowned in a choking wave of déjà vu as he witnessed himself step outside and scoop up the egg in his arms. The present Zenatheus glimpsed a young, seven-year-old boy peering out from behind past Zenatheus.

The past Zenatheus cradled the egg for a split second, then looked up, staring through his present self with such intensity he obeyed the powerful impulse to look over his shoulder and follow his past self’s gaze.

There, sailing across the sky and at times tumbling over the ground, was an empty black cloak, flapping about like an escaped flag, caught on a spectral gust of wind. It seemed to be trailing darkness, almost some sort of magical aura… then suddenly the invisible gust lifted it high into the air. For a moment it was outlined with the white beam of the moon.

Then it was gone and the dream faded away, leaving befuddling thoughts that would tumble around in Zenatheus’s mind just like an ebony cloak tumbling over cobblestone, as if driven by a specter.


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